American Jews Know How This Story Goes

From The New York Times:

The way forward from Pittsburgh is written in our prayer books.

By Dara Horn
Nov. 2, 2018

“There are no words.”

This was what I heard most often last weekend from those who were stunned by the news: 11 people were murdered at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh — believed to be the largest massacre of Jews on American soil. But there are words for this, entire books full of words: the books the murdered people were reading at the hour of their deaths. News reports described these victims as praying, but Jewish prayer is not primarily personal or spontaneous. It is communal reading. Public recitations of ancient words, scripts compiled centuries ago and nearly identical in every synagogue in the world. A lot of those words are about exactly this.

When I told my children what had happened, they didn’t ask why; they knew. “Because some people hate Jews,” they said. How did these American children know that? They shrugged. “It’s like the Passover story,” my 9-year-old told me. “And the Hanukkah story. And the Purim story. And the Babylonians, and the Romans.” My children are descendants of Holocaust survivors, but they didn’t go that far forward in history. The words were already there.

The people murdered in Pittsburgh were mostly old, because the old are the pillars of Jewish life, full of days and memories. They are the ones who come to synagogue first, the ones who know the words by heart. The oldest victim was Rose Mallinger, 97.

The year Ms. Mallinger was born was the tail end of the mass migration of more than two million Eastern European Jews to America between 1881 and 1924. Many brought with them memories of pogroms, of men invading synagogues with weapons, of blood on holy books. This wasn’t shocking, because it was already described in those books. On Yom Kippur in synagogue, these Jews read the stories of rabbis murdered by the Romans, including Rabbi Hanina ben Tradyon, who was wrapped in a Torah scroll set aflame. Before dying, he told his students, “The parchment is burning, but the letters are flying free!”

My synagogue’s old prayer book hints at what these stories meant to American Jews Ms. Mallinger’s age. Its 1939 English preface to those stories of murdered rabbis asks: “Who can forget, even after decades, the sight of his father huddled in the great prayer shawl and trying in vain to conceal the tears which flowed down his cheeks during the recital of this poem?” By the time I was a kid reciting those poetic stories, no one was crying. Instead my siblings and I smirked at the excessive gory details, the violence unfamiliar enough to be absurd. But Rabbi Hanina must have been right, because we still were reading from that same scroll, the same words Jews first taught the world: Do not oppress the stranger. Love your neighbor as yourself.

People Ms. Mallinger’s age were in their 20s when word spread about mass murders of Jews in Europe. In synagogue on Rosh Hashana, they read the old words begging God for compassion, “for the sake of those killed for your holy name,” and “for the sake of those slaughtered for your uniqueness.” My husband’s grandparents came here after those massacres, their previous spouses and children slaughtered like the people in the prayer. They kept reciting the prayer, and for their new American family it reverted to metaphor.

In the decades that followed, Jews from other places joined American synagogues, many bringing memories that American Jews had forgotten. Those memories were waiting for them in the synagogue’s books. On the holiday of Purim, they recited the Book of Esther, about an ancient Persian leader’s failed attempt at a Jewish genocide. It’s a time for costumes and levity, for shaking noisemakers to blot out the evildoer’s name. One year my brother dressed as the ayatollah, and the Persians in our congregation laughed. Another year someone dressed as Gorbachev; the Russians loved it. The evildoers seemed defeated.

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